My colleague at Purchase College, Kathleen Zamboni McCormick, has published her first novel, Dodging Satan, and it’s one that will be of particular interest to Commonweal readers. It tells the story of Bridget Flaherty, an Irish/Italian girl growing up in the greater Boston area, trying to negotiate the various claims upon her identity: her Catholic upbringing, her Irish and Italian heritages, and her emerging sexuality.
The novel’s first paragraph sets the tone for what follows:
The Italian and Irish sides of our family can argue about almost anything—the thickness of porridge, how much people can drink before they’re officially alcoholics, and which side acts more like “bloody foreigners.” But they all agree on the sacredness of the crucifix. An uncle on each side survived an attack in WWII that killed the rest of their platoons—all because they were wearing their crucifixes.
This is a novel filled with arguments, and McCormick is particularly adept at showing how frequently family gatherings—Christmas parties, in particular—can shift from celebration to adjudication, becoming a forum for the airing of past grievances. Bridget’s aunts and uncles flit in and out of the novel, serving both as a chorus and as the background against which Bridget must carve out her own sense of self.
A deep part of this self, affecting everything from Bridget’s imagination to her sense of physical embodiment, is her being raised Catholic. The novel opens with Bridget’s First Communion, and it ends with her taking a Diocesan exam on which this question appears: “Our Lady has blessed children all over the world by appearing to them. Today she has chosen to appear to you alone. Describe, step-by-step, what your words and actions would be with the Blessed Mother.” Bridget struggles with her faith throughout, often in comic fashion, in particular trying to figure out how female sexuality fits (or, as she comes to believe, doesn’t fit) within the Catholic church.
Dodging Satan manages to be both theological and comical. Indeed, it finds comedy in theology, even and especially when it’s taking theology seriously. Take Bridget’s thoughts about the Incarnation, how this incursion of the eternal into the temporal might have affected a very human, very young woman: “I mean, you have a baby and it turns out to be God. Where does that leave her? She can’t even discipline Him. And talk about on-demand feeding. He’s God, for heaven’s sake. What He wants, He has to be given.”
This kind of delightful irreverence occurs again and again, as Bridget wonders what the word “plenary” in “plenary indulgence” means, or when she worries over whether breaking a cheap rosary indicates the precarious state of her own soul, or when she obsessively dreams of the very particular kind of crucifix she wants for her First Communion: “authentic-detailed,” bloody, and violent, so that “just looking at it gives you the feeling that you went through the whole fourteen Stations of the Cross.” (Bridget is disappointed to actually receive “a thin, almost transparent white plastic crucifix on a tiny matching round stand—it couldn’t even hang—with a puny silver Jesus on it.” Mere kid’s stuff, she thinks.)
McCormick gives a real sense for what Andrew Greeley has described as the Catholic imagination: the Catholic belief in the world’s sacramental nature, in “a God who is present in the world, disclosing Himself in and through creation.” For cradle Catholics, it’s easy to forget how strange—how wonderful and how terrifying—this sense of God’s physical presence in the world can be to a child. McCormick reminds us of the lived experience of Catholic dogma, especially how this dogma might shape a young girl with an ever-churning imagination.
Satan isn’t a myth for Bridget; he haunts her bedroom every night. Mary isn’t a figure from the distant past; “she gets to time-travel and become famous across all time and space.” That’s what will stick with me longest from Dodging Satan: how Catholicism, not just to theologians but to children, is a religion of living, breathing, exhilarating, and frightening presence.